July 14, 2022 – Every Monday night during the academic year, upwards of 150 students gather at Saint Louis University’s Catholic Studies Center for “Campion Night,” a program of spiritual and cultural formation named for the English Jesuit martyr St. Edmund Campion.
A network of more than 65 volunteers and benefactors, many of them SLU alumni, serve a homemade meal to the students each week as part of the program. A delegation of ten of these “Campion Volunteers” made a pilgrimage to England May 22 to 31 to trace the footsteps of the Center’s patron and to represent SLU on visits to Jesuit institutions across the country.
James and Mary Lewis called the pilgrimage transformative. “I’ve been cooking for a program named for St. Edmund Campion for several years,” Mary said. “But now I feel like I know him.”
Before he entered the still-young Society of Jesus in 1570, Campion was one of the most renowned scholars at the University of Oxford. Because the practice of the Catholic faith had been outlawed in England under Queen Elizabeth I, Campion’s decision to become a priest came at the price of exile from his own country. He completed his Jesuit formation abroad and taught for several years at the Jesuit College in Prague before the Superior General decided in 1580 that Campion should go back to England — this time secretly and at the risk of being tortured and killed — to minister to besieged Catholics.
The SLU pilgrims visited places where evidence of both the danger and the heroism of this period remains, none more dramatic than a manor house near Birmingham called Harvington Hall.
Built in the 16th century by a family determined to remain Catholic, the house still has seven intact secret chambers for hiding priests. Designed by Nicholas Owen, SJ, a Jesuit brother highly skilled in carpentry, the “priest holes” are hidden in the staircases, behind wooden beams, inside false chimneys and below floorboards. When priest hunters came to the door, Campion and other priests secretly ministering to the faithful would have to hide in these small unlit chambers, often for days at a time.
Several of the pilgrims from SLU were able to climb inside one of the priest holes. Father Matthew Baugh, SJ, who directs the Catholic Studies Center at SLU and who led the pilgrimage, found the experience deeply moving.
“It was the unbelievable heroism of these early Jesuits that made me want to enter the Society of Jesus in the first place,” said Baugh. “I felt very close to them there. And it suddenly struck me that their willingness to be confined in such a tiny place made them like Christ who became small enough to fit in a human womb.”
The pilgrimage was “a life-changing experience” for Dale and Angie Doerr. “Following in St. Edmund Campion’s footsteps has made me think more deeply about Christian martyrdom and the courage it took for him to live out his faith,” Angie said.
“While I know I will never be called to the extreme and horrible end he was called to, it does make me reflect on my life and the opportunities presented to me every day for smaller acts of Christian kindness and sacrifices.”
After moving from house to house for just over a year, Campion was finally captured in July 1581 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Nearly 50 years earlier, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher were put to death for their Catholic faith by decapitation at the Tower. By the time Campion was executed, persecution of Catholics had reached fierce new heights. He was dragged across the city to what is now Hyde Park and then was hanged, drawn and quartered on a triple gallows called the Tyburn Tree.
The SLU pilgrims were able to visit the parts of the Tower where not only Campion but also More and Fisher had been held. They began the pilgrimage with Mass at a convent near the site of Tyburn and ended it with Mass at the Church of the English Martyrs near the Tower of London.
“Each of the intimate Masses was very special and meaningful for me,” said Anne Weidmann. “Being a ‘visual’ person, the physical environs of each Mass affected me deeply, especially the outdoor Mass we celebrated in the ruins of Whalley Abbey,” a 14th-century monastery in the north of England that was destroyed by Henry VIII.
The SLU pilgrims also visited major Jesuit educational institutions along the way, including Campion Hall at the University of Oxford. There they were welcomed by the Master of the Hall, Fr. Nick Austin, SJ, and Jesuits from around the world completing doctorates at Oxford, just as Fr. Baugh had done several years ago.
Further north, the pilgrims visited Stonyhurst College, the oldest Jesuit school in the world which also maintains the oldest museum in the English-speaking world. Dr. Jan Graffius, the director of the museum, gave the pilgrims a tour of the remarkable collection of both cultural artifacts and relics. Among them were the rope that tied Campion’s hands on the way to his execution, Queen Mary’s personal prayer book, a large fragment of St. Thomas More’s hairshirt and a thorn from Jesus’ crown presented to Mary Queen of Scots by the King of France.
“We loved Stonyhurst,” said Mary Alice Helmsing. “What a treasure that it is still alive and active as a school after all these years. The fact that Catholics hid and gathered these special items and gave them to Stonyhurst to keep safe gave us a real understanding of the love and courage of everyday Catholics that helped carry the faith forward.” Her husband Bob Helmsing agreed. “We have a whole new admiration for the thousands of Catholics who bravely and often secretly practiced their faith in constant fear,” he said. “Many have been canonized but thousands more are equally saints.”
Back at SLU, Campion Volunteers will be gearing up before long for a whole new year of Campion Nights at the Catholic Studies Center. In addition to food and fellowship, they will now be able to share their experiences of Campion’s England. The Center commemorates its patron annually on the saint’s feast day by presenting the prestigious Campion Award to figures in our own time who have fostered Christian engagement of culture in bold new ways.